What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

Zoosemiotics is the study of animal communication, and it’s played an important role in the development of ethology, sociobiology, and the study of animal cognition. Writers can also learn from zoosemiotics. Think characterization and scene enhancement.

In the animal kingdom, the sender and receiver of communication may be part of the same species or from different species. Crows, for example, warn the chippies, squirrels, and numerous small birds when dangerous predators are in the area. They do this with a vocal alarm, and every animal pays attention. When crows are around good people and animals they’re comfortable with, they blink several times per minute and have a relaxed, roaming gaze. If a predator prowls or coasts into their domain, their unblinking, hard stare at the threat warns other wildlife in the area.

Warning Coloration

In species such as wasps that are capable of harming potential predators, they’re often brightly colored, and this modifies the behavior of the predator who either instinctively knows to be wary or has learned to use caution through past experiences. Some forms of mimicry fall in the same category. For example, hoverflies have similar coloring to wasps. Although they’re unable to sting, wasps avoid them.

Coloration changes in characters include reddening or flushed neck and/or face (anger or embarrassment) or the lack of color i.e., pale (fear, anxiety, or nervousness).

Behavioral Changes

Canines such as wolves and coyotes may adopt an aggressive posture, such as growling, head leveling, or baring teeth to warn a potential predator to stay back, that if they approach, the canine is ready and able to fight. Rattlesnakes use their telltale rattle—it means, if you come near me, I will strike. Certain amphibians with a bright colored belly and a back that blends into the environment, flash their belly when confronted by a potential threat, indicating they are poisonous in some way.

Behavioral changes in characters include a snarled lip, clenched fists, pitching forward, or lunging at the threat (anger), mouth dryness, licking lips, avoiding eye contact, clenched hands/arms, jerky steps, fidgeting, defensive posture (fear, anxiety, or nervousness), slumped shoulders, tears, flat speech (sadness), raised eyebrows, eyes widening, slacked jaw (surprise), open body language, smiling (happiness) etc.…


An example of prey to predator communication is stotting, a highly noticeable form of running shown by some antelopes such as a Thomson’s gazelle. Stotting indicates the animal is healthy and fit, thus not worth pursuing.

Stotting behavior in characters: Think about the difference between jogging and running for your life. The feet may be sloppy or the character zigzags, trips, or falls (fear).

Predator to Prey

Some predators communicate to prey in ways that change their behavior. The deception makes them easier to catch. Take, for example, the angler fish. Fleshy growth protruding from its forehead dangles in front of its jaws. Smaller fish try to take the lure, thereby positioning themselves directly in front of the angler fish’s mouth.

Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture. 😉

Human & Animal Communication

We are all part of the Natural World. Various ways in which humans interpret the behavior of domestic animals and/or wildlife fit the definition of interspecific communication. Although dogs can use vocal communication, they mainly display nonverbal communication through the use of body language, such as tail carriage and motion, ear and eye position, body position and movement, and facial expressions. Recognizing the correct nonverbal cue will help decipher what the dog is telling us.

More character nonverbal cues include sweating, trembling, damp eyes, muscles tensing, crossed arms or the drawing in of limbs, the body recoiling (fear, anxiety, nervousness), sudden backward movement (surprise), relaxation of muscles (happiness), etc….

While observing a dog’s body language it’s crucial to observe the entire dog, as well as the situation or context. For example, a dog’s wagging tail does not always mean Fido’s happy. A tail in motion is often noticed first, but the rest of the dog is board-stiff, and the ears are back and the dog’s in a couched position, the full picture tells you Fido’s not happy with the situation.

5 Common Groups of Canine Signals

Keep in mind, a dog could use more than one response at a time. Hence why it’s important to analyze the entire dog, not just one body cue (the same applies to characters).

Fido may start with a display of excitement, then decide the stimuli is a threat and switch to aggressive posturing, or send fear signals, or both.

As we review each group, notice the similarities to us (characters).

Fearful Communication

When a dog is frightened, he’s likely to react with his whole body. He may lick his lips, yawn, keep his mouth tightly closed, cower or lower his body, lower or tuck his tail, or flatten his ears. He may also tremble or shake, avoid eye contact, or lean back to avoid the frightening stimulus.

The body language may be a combination of several signals and/or may appear as a progression through these signals as the dog’s response intensifies. Sometimes, the complete absence of active signals can speak volumes. A dog that won’t eat food or treats, is avoiding people when they approach, or freezes when someone reaches for him—a “shut down” appearance—is demonstrating fear. Sadly, we often see this behavior in shelters if the dog doesn’t get adopted. Shelter dogs also may display high arousal or excitement.

Arousal Communication

The arousal in shelter dogs could be due to many factors, including age, confinement, lack of physical and/or mental outlets, and personality. An arousal/excitement response could indicate joy directed at a certain person, another dog, or toy. If the context is a favorable one, the dog should have soft, relaxed body and eyes and mouth, along with a wagging tail that jumps for attention. He may also play-bow—rear end in the air, front end lowered—to demonstrate excitement. Other cues are jumping, mounting, and mouthing. Mouthing should be soft (no teeth).

Arousal behaviors can also be directed at unfavorable stimuli, such as an unwanted human, animal, or situation. Arousal signals in this context may be coupled with fear signals, such as trembling or a low/tucked tail. Or the arousal signals are paired with aggression—barking, lunging, anxious pacing or spinning, or biting of leash, clothing, or the unfavorable stimuli. The dog’s fur can pilo-erect (hackle), his ears bent forward or at attention, his stance upward and erect. The tail is often up and wagging stiffly, and the eyes are wide-open and focused on the target. He could also bark, growl, and/or lunge.

Anxious Communication

If a dog becomes stressed, he may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and lack of focus. Similar body language to a fearful dog, when in reality, he’s filled with anxiety. Which is why context is key. A dog that jumps at the kennel door as a person approaches is displaying arousal/excitement. Whereas a dog bounding off the side walls of the kennel displays anxious communication signals.

Aggressive Communication

Aggression is a normal and natural behavior in animals, triggered by a perceived threat. Aggressive vocalizations and body posturing are warning signals.

In dogs, we understand aggression through body language that includes stiffening or freezing, eyes wide with the whites visible (called whale eye), tense mouth or curled lips, wrinkled nose, bared teeth, barking, growling, and air snapping.

Relaxed Communication

We all love dogs in a relaxed position, like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Mouth relaxed, lips slightly parted. A smiling appearance. Head and ears relaxed in a neutral position, body loose, eyes soft. His tail may be swishing back and forth, or even wagging in a circular motion. My favorite is when a dog’s lying in the frog-leg position. Those froggy legs are hard to resist!

Over to you, TKZers! You may be using animal communication and not realize it, because many behaviors are similar to our own body language. If you’d like to give an example from your WIP, go for it. Otherwise, please include different animals and how they communicate.



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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

23 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn from Animal Communication

  1. Great insights, Sue. Your point about deceptive-looking characters reminded me of Sheriff Jim Patton from Raymond Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake. Fat, slow in speech and action, he had a campaign poster that read, “Keep Jim Patton constable. He is too old to go to work.” Useless? He certainly appears so. But! We find out near the end of the story he has a secret skill that saves the day.

  2. Wonderful information, Sue. Very interesting.

    We don’t have pets, so I have no good information about animal communication – except racoons. We live in a woods, so we have more raccoon guests around our house than we have room (or desire) for. I live-trap and relocate. And there’s nothing quite so dramatic as the difference between the males and females in a trap. The male may be larger, but has his head bowed in submission. The female however, may be separated from her young, and is pure aggression. having already done as much damage to the trap as she can muster, having her head up in defiance and growling, mouth open, looking for something to bite.

    This topic reminds me of Steven James’ (Story Trumps Structure) discussion on characterization from the viewpoint of “Status,” which boils down to predator vs. prey (or dominant vs. subordinate in every relationship, position, or situation), and how that is portrayed for the reader in language, posture, and activity.

    Thanks for a very interesting post. Hope you have a great week.

  3. Mike Romeo is the classic “lone wolf.” When he’s confronted by another wolf, who usually snarls, growls and gets ready to pounce, Romeo utilizes an advanced trait—words. This momentarily freezes the predator, shifting the advantage to Romeo. Once the fight is on, however, it is, as Jack London put it in The Call of the Wild, “the law of club and fang.”

  4. Sue, you always teach me fascinating facts. Copying this post to my “Coletta Research” folder. Yes, you have your own folder among my documents 😉

    Today you expanded my vocabulary with stotting (AKA pronking), pilo-erect, and whale-eye.

    This video brings back memories of our German Shorthairs. https://www.rover.com/blog/pronking-stotting-dogs/

    “Describing deceptiveness in characters would take an entire post, but you get the picture.”

    I’d love to see that post (hint, hint).

  5. Thanks, Sue, for an entertaining and informative post.

    My experience with animal behavior is limited, but interesting:

    1) Dogs crack under questioning. Actually, they crack before questioning begins. “Did you do that?” elicits ducking of the head and slinking away while avoiding eye contact.

    2) Cats don’t have a fu…er, I mean, a darn to give. They admit nothing and have no “tells.” They don’t engage at all, about anything, unless they want something. Every cat in the world should be named “One Way.”

    3) Squirrels are more complex. I have had a couple who have built nests in my trees. Both lost their young to hawks and promptly raised unshirted hell with me, apparently thinking that the Lord of the Manor was responsible. All of my denials were for naught. They chattered and screamed at me for several minutes. I listened, because it was the polite thing to do, but to no avail.

    Thanks again for sharing, Sue. Have a great week!

  6. I listened, because it was the polite thing to do

    Hahahaha!!! Oh, SJ, you make my heart sing.

    Wishing you an amazing week, my friend! <3

  7. Thanks, Sue, for another fascinating post.

    I read a book years ago entitled “The Man Who Listens to Horses.” It was the story of Monty Roberts, the man who was the model for “The Horse Whisperer.”

    Roberts told the story of how he observed horses in the wild when he was a young man and learned the way the primary mare of a herd would discipline a young upstart. If I remember correctly, the mare would cut the disruptive colt out of the herd and wouldn’t allow him to return until he showed remorse by lowering his head and doing a licking and chewing action with his mouth.

    Roberts used what he learned to train horses without any of the brutal techniques that were fairly common at that time.

    • Love that, Kay. Crows have a similar punishment. If a youngster is caught stealing food before the alpha female allows him or her to eat, the entire family pins the offending crow to the ground for a heated discussion. Broke my heart the first time I witnessed it, but the results speak for themselves. Everyone in the family has the utmost respect for their elders.

  8. Great post, Sue!

    We have the almighty killdeer around our property. Deception is the name of their game, and camouflage is their secret weapon.

    Some killdeer parents should get Oscar nominations for their acting skills as they try to lead threats away from their nests.

    I say nests, but they’re hardly that. We have a field north of our house that has nothing but weeds, hard-pan, and rocks scattered about. We scout for their eggs, watching the direction the parents try to lead us in, and then we look in the opposite direction. They do a broken wing imitation, sometimes hunkering down and making “I’m injured!” sounds. It’s quite entertaining.

    We can walk by their eggs, inches away, and never see them. They’re geniuses at laying them near rocks that look similar. And they lay them right on the bare dirt, right out in the open, instead of in a nest-which we’d notice right away. I never get tired of watching them.

    I could craft a character with “a particular skill set”, as Liam Neeson says in Taken. Deception, hiding in plain sight, and misdirection would be high on that list.

    Have a great day!

    • Your comment made me smile, Deb!

      they lay them right on the bare dirt, right out in the open, instead of in a nest-which we’d notice right away.

      That’s why it works. The nest is too obvious. Mind if quote you in my next post? It’s a perfect example of deception.

  9. Living with dogs, cats, and a horse in the days before animal communication studies were available was a lesson every day for me. I was illiterate most of the time. They read me like a kid’s book in very large print.

    Mimicking their behavior from the gentle eye squeeze of “I love you” to the cat, to the “yes” blink of a dog was fun. Deciding I was going to die rather back away was scary. When my golden retriever Molly was tiny, we were a bit away from the house and out in the open, and a pack of large feral dogs showed up. I’d never seen them before. They approached, and I knew Molly was a dead puppy. With more instinct than sense, I stood over her, postured myself, and snarled like I was going to rip their throats out. They stopped in confusion at the lunatic human speaking dog and decided Molly wasn’t worth the risk. I never saw them again.

    Confidence and insanity speaks volumes to all animals, including our own.

    • That sounds like something I’d do, Marilynn. No one — and I mean no one — hurts my babies, outside wildlife or indoor pets, without me getting in the middle. They also know if “Mumma” isn’t happy, the food supply will dry up. The result is a peaceful collection of animals who all get along. 😉

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